Fire and Fire Surrogate Study

Research Issue

Excessive fuel buildup from fire suppression necessitates treatments to restore ecological integrity and reduce the risk of severe, uncontrolled wildfire in some forested ecosystems. The Fire and Fire Surrogate study was established by a team of scientists and land managers with support from the USDA/USDI Joint Fire Science Program to study at a national scale (in 13 ecosystems nationwide) the effects of fuel reduction treatments on several response variables (vegetation, wildlife, fuel and fire behavior, soils, entomology, pathology, and cost). Treatments are: (1) Prescribed fire; (2) Mechanical thinning of shrubs; (3) Mechanical thinning + prescribed fire; and (4) Untreated control. Our studies examine how fire and fire surrogates affects breeding bird, reptile and amphibian, small mammal, and macroarthropod communities in upland hardwood forests.

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Our Research

Our research is conducted in upland hardwood forest at the southern Appalachian study area on the Green River Game Lands in Polk County, North Carolina. We initially studied how small mammal, herpetofauna, macroarthropod, and breeding bird communities responded to a single application of three different fuel reduction treatments (prescribed fire, mechanical thinning of shrubs, and mechanical thinning + prescribed fire) and controls. Some of these studies were continued after a second and third prescribed burn in both burn treatments (prescribed fire; mechanical thinning + prescribed fire).

Our results show:

  1. Habitat structure in the mechanical thinning + prescribed fire treatment was different compared to the other fuel reduction treatments. Hotter fire in this treatment resulted in heavy tree-kill, more snags, more light, and short term reductions in leaf litter and shrub cover
  2. A single application of these fuel reduction methods do not negatively affect amphibians, but high-intensity burning with heavy tree-kill results in higher lizard abundance in the short-term. Multiple prescribed burns may adversely affect terrestrial salamanders, but continue to benefit lizards
  3. Many bird species are unaffected by a single prescribed fire and the other fuel reduction treatments, but some ground- or shrub- associated species showed short-term declines. However, bird species richness, total density, and densities of several species associated with early succession conditions were highest in the treatment with high-intensity fire and heavy tree-kill. Higher species richness and abundance in the treatment with heavy tree-kill were still apparent after a second prescribed burn in both burn treatments
  4. White-footed mouse density increased but shrew density decreased in the treatment with high-intensity fire and heavy tree-kill;
  5. Ground-dwelling macroarthropods were relatively unaffected by any of the fuel reduction treatments. Meta-analysis of herpetofaunal results from four southeastern FFS sites showed that treatment effects on herpetofauna response variables were predicted by the direct and indirect effects of stand basal area, coarse woody debris volume, native herb cover, and forest floor depth.

Expected Outcomes

This study represents the first comprehensive look at vegetation and wildlife response to multiple prescribed burns and mechanical fuel reduction treatments in upland hardwood forests of the southern Appalachians and will help inform the current debate over the role of prescribed fire there. Long-term results will provide information on the ecological effects of prescribed burning when used as a tool for fuel reduction, ecosystem restoration, or habitat management.

Research Results

  • Greenberg, C.H., D.L. Otis, T.A. Waldrop. 2006. Response of white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) to fire and fire surrogate fuel reduction treatments in a southern Appalachian hardwood forest. For. Ecol. Manage. 234:355-362.
  • Tomcho, A.L., C.H. Greenberg, J.D. Lanham, T.A. Waldrop, J. Tomcho, D. Simon. 2007. Effects of prescribed fire and understory felling on breeding bird communities in a southern Appalachian upland hardwood forest. Pp. 275-296 In: Powers, R.F. (Tech. ed.). Restoring Fire-adapted Ecosystems. Proc. 2005 National Silviculture Workshop. USFS PSW-GTR-203.
  • Greenberg, C.H., A. Livings-Tomcho, A.D. Lanham, T.A. Waldrop, J. Tomcho, R.J. Phillips, D. Simon. 2007. Short-term effects of fire and other fuel reduction treatments on breeding birds in a southern Appalachian hardwood forest. J. Wildl. Manage. 71(6):1906-1916.
  • Greenberg, C.H., S. Miller, T.A. Waldrop. 2007. Short-term response of shrews to prescribed fire and mechanical fuel reduction in a southern Appalachian upland hardwood forest. For. Ecol. Manage. 243:231-236.
  • Greenberg, C.H., T.A. Waldrop. 2008. Short-term response of reptiles and amphibians to prescribed fire and mechanical fuel reduction in a southern Appalachian hardwood forest. Forest Ecol and Manage. 255:2783-2793.
  • Kilpatrick, E.S., T.A. Waldrop, J.D. Lanham, C.H. Greenberg, T.H. Contreras. 2010. Short-term effects of fuel reduction treatments on herpetofauna from the southeastern United States. For. Sci. 59:122-130.
  • Greenberg, C.H. T. Forrest, T.A. Waldrop. 2010. Short-term response of ground-dwelling macroarthropods to prescribed fire and mechanical fuel reduction in a southern Appalachian upland hardwood forest. For. Sci. 59:112-121.
  • Matthews, C.E., C.E. Moorman, C.H. Greenberg, T.A. Waldrop. 2009. Response of soricid populations to repeated fire and fuel reduction treatments in the southern Appalachian Mountains. For. Ecol. Manage. 257:1939-1944.
  • Matthews, C.E., C.E. Moorman, C.H. Greenberg, T.A. Waldrop. 2010. Response of reptiles and amphibians to repeated fuel reduction treatments. J. Wildl. Manage. 74:1301-1310.

Research Principal Investigators

  • Cathryn H. Greenberg, Southern Research Station, RWU 4157
  • Tom Waldrop, Southern Research Station, RWU 4156
  • Drew Lanham, Clemson University
  • Chris Moorman, North Carolina State University

Research Partners and Collaborators

  • Dean Simon, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
  • Gordon Warburton, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
  • Joe Tomcho, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
  • Amy Livings-Tomcho, Clemson University
  • Charlotte Matthews, North Carolina State University
  • Tim Forrest, University of North Carolina at Asheville
  • David Otis, United States Geological Survey, Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit